How grassroots democracy powered Béjaia’s general strike against Algerian presidential election

In the Algerian province of Béjaia , grassroots democracy reached new heights in the four-day general strike in the run-up to the presidential election on 12 December. Middle East Solidarity spoke to university lecturer Kamel Aissat, an activist with the socialist PST party, about how organisation from below delivered an almost total shutdown of the province in defiance of the regime.

Marching in Béjaia on 13 December – image credit: Le collectif libre et independant des Femmes de Bejaia via Facebook

The general strike which took place in Béjaia province and which was promoted in several other provinces was a political strike with the basic goal of preventing the elections from taking place. It aimed to stop the imposition of elections on the province. It was an active strike because we called on everybody, all the workers, all the students, all the secondary school teachers who were arrested in front of their schools during strikes, to debate the goals of the strike and to discuss the perspectives of the movement itself. It was a self-organised strike because it wasn’t the trade unions who organised and led it, but it was rather through the workers, the school and university students and the shopkeepers organising themselves.

It was also self-organised in the sense that it wasn’t led by trade union structures or specific political parties, but rather by the general movement, with all its component parts. Of course there are trade unions as part of this movement, there are also collectives, popular committees from different neighbourhoods, from towns, who are in the committee. It was self-organised by the population from below through general assemblies which debated and took key decisions.

It was self-organised by the population from below through general assemblies which debated and took key decisions.

These general assemblies are places for debate, often in public squares in the town centre or in the villages. They are organised by the neighbourhood committees, by the activists, among whom are trade unionists, workers and students. In the assemblies people discuss the state of the movement and perspectives and decide what actions to take. General assemblies in factories and universities are a bit different. They exist in a few factories and universities, but it is very limited, unfortunately. There are general assemblies of workers over political questions, but you have to understand that the trade union bureaucracy prevents the emergence of factory committees and trade unions which are genuinely independent of the regime.

Why did the general strike take off in Béjaia while other provinces weren’t on strike? This region has a particular history, it has long-standing working class and left-wing traditions which go back to the 70s and 80s, and there is a generation of far-left militants.

However, across the country, Algerian workers have, in general, taken part in the political movement since 22 February 2019, as citizens, rather than as workers. They haven’t responded to it as a class, through their social organisations, nor through developing forms of independent political expression. This is one of the major weaknesses of the movement in Algeria, despite the fact that this is a profoundly social movement. It is certainly democratic, but its roots are social.

Over several decades, workers have had no opportunities for democratic organisation. The regime has been able, in a sense, to impose an authoritarian regime on all the institutions connected to the world of work, as well as on political organisations. That is why the workers took part in this strike organising themselves. They were the ones who decided what forms of strike action to take and what the minimum levels of service would be during the strike, in association with the trade union organisations, or in some cases with other organisations where there weren’t trade unions. In some factories collectives have been set up, although this is on a modest scale.

The call for the general strike was launched with a publicity campaign several months ago. I recall that the collective statement calling for the general strike noted that the departure of Bouteflika in April 2019 was only achieved as a result of the general strike in strategic sectors, particularly the petroleum sector, which took place between 8-12 March. This strike upset the equilibrium of the regime, pushing them to get rid of Bouteflika, as the goal was to save the regime itself, while sacrificing its ‘face’ and his allies. The faction of the bourgeoisie which was in power up until 15 March was knocked out by this general strike, while there was another faction which used the general strike in order to launch the process which included the imposition of the illegitimate president, Ben Salah, and an illegitimate government, followed by attempts to organise two elections which were blocked by the people.

It was those events we referenced in the collective statement calling for a general strike in Béjaia, launched by the popular citizens’ committees, and also launched by a large number of trade unions in the province, including the local trade union bureaucracy of the national union federation UGTA which issued a call for four days of strike action in defiance of its own national leadership. It should be mentioned here that the UGTA in Béjaia is partially suspended by the national federation, because it differs fundamentally over the current political battle for radical change to the system.

Daily life, commerce were all struck ‘dead’ across the province.

Independent trade unions also called for the strike, and the traders and small shopkeepers also backed it. Transport companies shut down, so the whole province was paralysed: the airport, port, factories, schools, university. Daily life, commerce were all struck ‘dead’ across the province. Meanwhile the population organised, where it could, to blockade the polling stations in order to stop the elections, and to stop the violation of their democratic rights.

There are also the political parties which are allied through the Pacte pour l’alternative democratique (PAD – Pact for a Democratic Alternative). This is a group of organisations – not ‘left’ organisations, but democratic organisations – which have come together around a set of demands for the release of political prisoners, the right to protest in Algiers and elsewhere, some basic demands from a democratic point of view. Evidently, the PAD brings together all the parties which consider that the rupture with the regime in Algeria cannot be achieved by holding new elections now, and can only be achieved by the refoundation of all the existing constitutional texts, by the people, organised from below.

This is what the people at the heart of the PAD have in common, and they launched an appeal for a general strike. This wasn’t easy for some people who are quite liberal, but the pressure from the street, and from the left organisations has meant that the PAD has supported all the calls for the strike, and has maintained the mobilisation to prevent and block the violation of popular sovereignty which the election on 12 December represented.

‘Let’s open spaces for debate and reflection in our universities, neighbourhoods and villages in order to build a political strategy for our movement’ – placard on 27 December 2019, Bejaia image credit: Le collectif libre et independant des Femmes de Bejaia via Facebook

The current movement in Algeria, and the general strikes, don’t have an identifiable leadership. This lies usually with collectives of some trades unions, or women’s organisations, feminist collectives, activists from particular neighbourhoods. The Friday demonstrations play an important role, for example the call to join the strike was amplified strongly by the Friday demonstration before the general strike started.

Unfortunately there weren’t any general assemblies in the workplaces during the general strike, because transport wasn’t functioning so workers couldn’t get to their workplaces, except where there was a minimum service. However, workers were the majority in the general assemblies in the neighbourhoods and in the villages, because it was they who prevented the security forces from opening the polling stations. They succeeded because they set up vigilance committees which stayed in front of the polling stations for 48 hours in order to stop any intrusion by the security forces.

There were also debates in the neighbourhoods, in the villages and in public squares about what kind of Algeria we want to see tomorrow. This was useful because it is during the debates that social questions emerge and take on importance for the next day’s battle. I recall that we were always insisting on the political necessity of formulating political alternatives and this is one of the great weaknesses of the current movement.

The principles of the general strike which were adopted for the four days were those of a ‘classic’ general strike – creating a ‘dead’ city, like we experienced during the war of liberation in particular during the Battle of Algiers, when there was a two-week general strike across the whole of Algiers to say that ‘we are with the revolution’. This was the historical reference, and this is what was implied in this strike. It was decided that the bakeries, pharmacies, health services must remain open because this is what would ensure confidence from society. In terms of the factories, it was the workers themselves with their trade unions and local committees, who decided which sections to shut down and which would be under minimal security, in particular for the dairy industry, for services such as gas, as we are dependent on bottled butane gas. So these services were assured.

After 5pm all the shops opened. Petrol stations were shut from 6am to 5pm, but they opened at night to ensure that lorries and buses in particular could get fuel. We had demonstrations everyday, so we couldn’t do without vehicles entirely. The strike was organised like this after we learnt from the strike in March, which was very hard, and nothing was functioning at all, and there was no minimum service at all. When you are taking action, the impact needs to be on your adversaries and not on wider society so there was an effort to limit the negative effect of the strike on the population.

Interview translated by Anne Alexander

What you can do: 

  • Rush immediate protests to the Algerian embassy condemning the violence against demonstrators and calling for the immediate release of political detainees.
  • Write to your MP calling on them to urge the UK government not to carry on “business as usual” with the Algerian regime but instead to call for an end to repression and for the release of political prisoners. 

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